The Doctor Is In

In Cleveland, they have their own hotel. In Pittsburgh, they have a new, purpose-built convention center. And in Philadelphia, they even have their own speakers bureau.

It's no secret that medical meetings are one of the few bright spots in a still-sluggish economy. Within the exhibition industry, medical events (which nearly always include an exhibition component) are not only the largest sector but the fastest growing. They represent almost one-quarter of total exhibitions and grew by a healthy four percent between 2000 and 2003, while the overall industry actually declined by 0.7 percent. So it's not surprising to learn that cities across America are stepping up their efforts to court this lucrative niche.

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Medical gatherings are now decidedly more buttoned down than they were a handful of years ago, as new guidelines and regulations have been introduced to prevent what were often blatant attempts at marketing by pharmaceutical and other firms. Because of the new emphasis on education over entertainment, northern destinations have become more attractive. That's not to say that physicians have stopped gathering at golf resorts in warm-weather havens, but cities like Philadelphia and Boston are finding that many of their attributes make them ideally suited for medical conferences.

Take ease of access. Doctors are increasingly unwilling to spend time away from their practices to attend conferences, notes Robert Marshall, managing partner of Partners in Healthcare Communications, a New York City planning firm specializing in pharmaceutical meetings: "They want to get in and get out." Ergo Boston, which is within two hours by air for over half the country's health-care professionals, is a natural meeting point, and in May, the city launched a marketing initiative to promote awareness of the new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center among potential medical clients.

The center, located on two interstate highways, is just eight minutes by cab from the airport or a 10-minute walk from the train station. That accessibility, combined with Beantown's top-ranked researchers, teaching hospitals, and science and biotechnology firms, will add up to an anticipated $311 million in economic impact from medical gatherings over the next 12 years. "Boston is a very popular destination," says John Folks, president and principal of Minding Your Business, a medical-meetings firm in Chicago. "It's perceived as a beautiful city with a strong medical community and lots to do."

Similar traits make Philadelphia another natural for medical gatherings. Its airport is a hub for US Airways and is now served by Southwest Airlines; it also receives direct flights from many European cities, making it accessible for international medical conferences. Within a day's drive of 40 percent of the U.S. population, the city also boasts five medical schools; in fact, one in five of all physicians in the U.S. were educated there. No wonder, then, that one-third of all meetings and conventions held in Philly are health-care related.

In an effort to leverage even more of these demographic attributes, Philadelphia's bureau formed its own health-care congress, comprised of 300 members of the local medical community who promote their hometown as a meeting place for the various medical societies and associations they belong to. The congress also includes a dedicated speakers bureau of nurses who are available to planners looking for low-cost, locally based speakers, or ones who can fill in at a moment's notice for no-show speakers. In addition, the city features unique venues such as the College of Physicians of Philadelphia's Mutter Museum, devoted to the health-care industry, and an outdoor mural, located just steps from the convention center, that depicts the history of the nursing profession.

The Cure

Not many cities can boast that they planned their convention center specifically for medical meetings—but that's exactly what happened in Pittsburgh, where the David L. Lawrence Convention Center was designed to include ample breakout space, a typical need of medical gatherings. The center features 53 meeting rooms of varying sizes, with built-in wall ledges on which to rest the foam-board signs that are ubiquitous at medical-meeting "poster sessions." The fact that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is known for cutting-edge research in organ transplants helped the convention center land the first National Learning Congress on Organ Donation this past May, with 1,700 attendees and $1.75 million in economic impact.

Cleveland, meanwhile, boasts an offering even first-tier cities can't match: the Cleveland Clinic, which for the past 10 years has been ranked the number-one heart center in the world. On its campus lies a new InterContinental Hotel and Conference Center, which specializes in medical meetings; its 500-seat proscenium theater can broadcast events—including heart surgery beamed in from the O.R.—live to the rest of the world, or just into the hotel's guest rooms for those who can't make it to the meeting.

A relatively new player in the medical arena is Houston. In typical Texas fashion, the city boasts the world's largest medical center (the Texas Medical Center, which includes the world-famous M.D. Anderson Cancer Center), but it wasn't until Houston built a slew of downtown hotels in time for the 2004 Super Bowl that it had enough meeting space to go after medical conventions. Now, especially since last year's opening of the 1,200-room Hilton Americas headquarters property, the city has been successfully courting this niche. In fact, it recently booked the granddaddy of all doctors' meetings: the American Medical Association, which in 2009 will bring 2,000 attendees and more than $5 million in economic impact.

In the new, back-to-basics business climate, a remote location and resort atmosphere can make it hard to target medical conferences. Even so, Hawaii is another big contender in this area. Honolulu's Hawaii Convention Center, for example, was mainly built to house the American Dental Association's 30,000-plus attendees. The city has leading researchers in microbiology, radiology, and biotechnology, and its strong Asian influence and strategic location make it a popular choice for international medical meetings with attendees from the Asia-Pacific region, says Mike Murray, vice president of sales and marketing at the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. "The medical sector has been first or second for us year after year," he adds. "These meetings are impervious to global changes in the economy."

In fact, perhaps one could say that any destination that isn't trying to attract medical meetings should see a doctor.

SIDEBAR

Attendee Profile: What Do Doctors Want?

Accessibility. Physicians want to fly in and out easily, says John Folks of Chicago-based Minding Your Business. Cities that are airline hubs, especially those with meeting facilities close to—or even at—the airport, are popular options.

Upscale properties with excellent service. Doctors have a very low tolerance for poor service, says Claire Modarelli, who's planned meetings for two decades at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa: "They expect the best of themselves and everyone else." That being said, medical meetings must be careful not to convey an image of excess, notes Folks: "The companies we work with always want a nice hotel, but not necessarily the nicest hotel."

High-tech capability. Many of Modarelli's attendees travel with laptops and insist on high-speed wireless access. She also requires T1 lines for videoconferencing, which she uses when broadcasting live surgery from an operating room to a hotel ballroom.

Fine dining and entertainment. Physicians are well known for enjoying the culinary and cultural offerings common to urban settings, says Modarelli—from top-notch restaurants to plays, concerts, and museums.

Weekend meetings. Meetings that used to be Monday-Wednesday have moved to weekends, says Folks. "Physicians can't afford to be out of the office anymore."